In 1960, Theodore Maiman’s invention of the ruby laser helped start a quiet revolution in what is now called photonics, the science of generating and controlling light. Frequently described as a solution without a problem, lasers have – in the 60 years since their invention – become a ubiquitous, foundational technology and are common – even necessary – components of everyday life.
Initially, lasers, which included fiber, excimer, semiconductor, dye, ultrafast, and more, were the domain of universities, research labs, and sophisticated manufacturing facilities. They were neither cheap nor readily available, their properties were understood by few, their capabilities somewhat mysterious, and the language to discuss them not accessible.
Lasers have persisted, however, and today various types play roles in industries as diverse as additive manufacturing, materials processing, astronomy, 3D imaging, geospatial mapping, machine vision, and fiber optic communication. They have permeated popular and consumer markets, too, and can be found in computer mouses and portable pointers, with additional uses in dermatology, hair and tattoo removal, for eye and other surgeries, even as pain therapy for pets.
Integration of Photonic Technologies
For each laser or light technology that has gained traction in popular culture, there seems an equal number that toil in anonymity or hide in plain sight. They are, for example, integral in metrology (the science of measurement), spectroscopy (the science of chemical analysis), and timekeeping (atomic clocks). Facial recognition in smartphones depends on infrared sensors and low-power lasers. And lidar, which is a method for gathering spatial and geographic data with light, depends on photons, too.
In the manufacturing sector, the use of light-based technologies is growing. Various work environments are adapting to the design of IoT (Internet of Things) and adopting the tenets of Industry 4.0; they are becoming smarter, more connected, and more focused on efficiency, lean processes and waste reduction. Ideally, the coordinated use of robotics, machine vision, and AR/VR headsets will enable workers to gather and review data and communicate and respond to problems in real-time.
Additionally, in our cities and communities, transportation and urban planners have become aware of the potential that light-based technologies offer. Interconnected smart cities are being discussed and designed, and the role of more efficient LED lighting integrated with imaging and lidar-equipped autonomous vehicles hold promise.
Beyond manufacturing and cities, other sectors, including health; infrastructure planning; water, land, and wildlife management; and policing also have a need for smart, dynamic systems and access to real-time data and information.
Interconnectedness and the Data Deluge
Communication is an essential service that unites these present and future-facing photonic and smart technologies. As of 2015, in the United States alone there were more than 100 thousand miles of fiber optic cables buried beneath the ground, and several hundreds of thousands more buried beneath the ocean floor.
Yet, according to a white paper published earlier this year by the Innovative Optical and Wireless Network Global Forum (IOWN GF), that system is stressed. What’s needed is a system designed around data that is more energy-efficient, more responsive to data demands from mobile and other users, more secure and possesses greater speed and capacity than today’s model.
The paper, titled “Vision 2030 and Technical Directions,” details four primary smart and connected world use cases, and demonstrates how systems and societies will come to rely not only on interconnected photonic technologies but on systems with optimization rates that exceed human capacity.
By Dr. Katsuhiko Kawazoe, president and chairperson of the Innovative Optical and Wireless Network Global Forum.